Dealing With Big Mistakes

The Torah epic of Jacob, Joseph and his brothers is an epic of tragic mistake after tragic mistake. Jacob showed favoritism to Joseph and gave him the (in)famous coat. Joseph dreamed of reigning over his brothers, of them all bowing down to him. He then had the political bad sense to actually tell them these dreams, which further fanned the flames.

Then, Jacob sends him alone to check up on the brothers working with the flocks near Shechem. He's appointed, it seems, Joseph to be his supervisor, and sends him unarmed to be with his already hate-filled brothers. And then they err in allowing their anger to dominate them and nearly kill Joseph, choosing at the last minute to sell him to slavery...

Lives are ruined, relationships never to properly recover, Jacob about to spend years in mourning for a son who is not dead, and jealous brothers refusing to admit their deed, comfort their father and do what they can to find Joseph and reunite the family.

Yes, these were all tremendous, life-changing mistakes that indeed did doom many of the participants to years of guilt.

And, yet, if one thinks about it, each of these mistakes was an inexorable part of Joseph's path to the premiership of Egypt, of the ultimate saving of untold thousands of souls from starvation during a famine, and of the literal fulfillment of Joseph's original dreams! In fact, had Jacob been a fairer parent, and had Joseph been more modest, this happy ending might not have ever come to pass!

To be sure, God has many ways to see His will fulfilled, so this was not the only scenario. Nonetheless, it is the way it happened, so how should we understand it?

I think that all of these deeds are the result of Jacob's mode of operation in his early life. He was, as you may recall, born clasping Esav's heel. He was a bit of a manipulator, from getting the birthright from Esav for some soup, to getting the blessings from Isaac by a ruse, to getting his wages and his way with Lavan.

Another fact to remember is Jacob's superhuman strength when he saw Rachel for the first time. It was more than just love that moved him, it was the confidence and the feeling of destiny when he saw God's providence and his future combined in Rachel's eyes. Whenever Jacob got confirmation from God that he was on the right path, he was always filled with inspiration.

But things got confusing for Jacob, as Lavan switched his bride at the ceremony and he married Leah instead. All of the children that were born to Leah and the two maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah were not part of Jacob's original desire. He had wanted to marry only Rachel. Thus, it was Rachel's son, Joseph, in whom Jacob saw the future confirmed again. It excited him, and he showed favoritism.

Joseph, too, had this awareness about himself. He knew he had a major part to play in God's running of the world, and it excited him. He could not keep his mouth shut, even when he should have sensed it politic to do so.

None of this is to make excuses, but to show something. Each person here made a mistake, and that mistake was a human one with Divine consequences. That is the meaning of "Remove the Satan from behind us." As the Talmudic sage Nachum of Gimzo was wont to say, "This, too, is for the good." We should stop beating ourselves up about the past, because we cannot change the past. We can only change our reaction to it, and our direction for the future. Guilt that does not motivate better behavior is unhealthy, and does not allow one to recognize the Divine gift of free choice to change our present and future.

We all make mistakes, and we should try to do better. But if, after the test was taken, we have failed, it is proper to look forward. What good can come out of this? How can I learn to do better next time? How can I deepen this ruptured relationship? May Hashem help us remove the Satan of helpless guilt from behind us, and help us look to the future. We may just see a tremendous opportunity sprouting in the ashes of a past mistake.

Turning Everything Into Gold

The basic principle can be found in a seemingly insignificant detail of the story of Jacob and his reconciliation with his brother, Esau. Esau had proclaimed his intent to murder Jacob, so Jacob had fled to his relatives in Mesopotamia. While there, he married and had 12 children. Now, 20 years later, he was returning to the land of Canaan. He did not know if his brother had reconciled himself to Jacob's existence, or if he still harbored murderous intent. So Jacob makes a plan.

His plan is based on the concept of three things: appeasement, preparation for battle, and prayer. Let's focus on the first of the three, appeasement. Jacob takes "whatever animals came to his hand," and prepared to send them as a gift to his brother Esau. The commentary written by the sainted Chofetz Haim asks why he Jacob did not intentionally take the best of his flocks? Why only "whatever animals come to hand?" He answers that Jacob observed the Torah's laws, and among them are the laws of kosher slaughtering of animals.

Esau, on the other hand, did not observe these laws. Therefore, Jacob didn't want to hand his animals over willingly to his brother, who would slaughter them in a nonkosher method, and cause them to be on a lower level of holiness. Apparently, being slaughtered in the kosher fashion as a spiritual effect even on animals!

Jewish law puts an emphasis on kindness to animals, and avoiding cruelty to them. A Talmudic story about one of the great rabbis illustrates the point. The rabbi was standing, when an animal which was due to be slaughtered escaped from the shochet, the ritual slaughter, and hid between the rabbi's legs. The rabbi told the animal, "go and submit yourself, because this is why you were created." Even though he was technically right, the rabbi was stricken by illness and attributed it to his sin of being insensitive to that animal. Later, he corrected his sin and was healed.

Another detail in the appeasement efforts of Jacob makes a similar point. Jacob had sent all the animals with his servants and slaves. The Chofetz Haim explains that Esau might have thought that the slaves were also for him. Thus, Jacob specifically instructs them to say, "these (we) are belonging to Jacob your brother, and are sending this gift to you...". In other words, Jacob was not giving his servants to Esau. Why not? Because, the rabbi explains, as long as they were in Jacob's household, they also were observing the laws of the Torah. If Jacob would give them to his brother, their holiness would be diminished, as they would cease observing the Torah.

From both of these stories we see a unique responsibility upon Jacob. It is not enough that he is nice and respectful of his servants, and kind to his animals. It is not enough to treat others well, there is a stronger obligation. He must uplift them! He must enable them all to reach their maximum spiritual potential. Even the animals have spiritual potential, and being part of a Torah household means living on a higher level. Thus, Jacob would not single out the animals to be given to Esau, rather he left it to chance, to "whatever comes to his hand."

Similarly, even if Esau would provide his servants with the most wonderful accommodations and pampering treatment, it would still be a disservice for Jacob to give them to him. Why? Because he would be lowering their spiritual level. Jacob could not afford to be humble, he had to know that his way of life was superior because of its greater spirituality. He had a responsibility to his servants to help them achieve their highest possible level.

Sadly, many leaders in the world today lead by reading polls. They don't seek to improve their people, they seek to appease them and please them. Even when Jacob was appeasing Esau, he did not allow himself to compromise the spirituality of anyone, or anything, under his influence.

However, Jacob also failed to do this in one element of his repatriation with Esau. After the reunion, Jacob's daughter Dina is kidnapped and raped by the Prince of Shechem. Our sages claim that this was punishment for how Jacob treated Dina when he was approaching Esau. Basically, he hid her in a box so that his brother would not see her and desire to marry her. Now, he may have thought that he was preventing her from being brought to a lower level by marrying Esau.

In truth, however, Dina would have had the power and influence to reform Esau! Jacob prevented this, he missed an opportunity to uplift and inspire his brother, and what followed was a punishment for that. While the appropriateness of such a "punishment" can be debated, the principle we are discussing shines clearly through: we must do everything to uplift and inspire every human being upon whom we have influence.

So, if the Jews would rule the world, it would be their responsibility to protect and inspire all of humanity. Indeed, as the Jews control the state of Israel, they must work to educate and uplift all residents of the land. We have a duty to fight off the negative influences, to expel the preachers of hate and to put an end to the vile anti-Semitic incitement and brainwashing taking place. We need to throw our weight around and make sure that all children are educated in the ways of God, specifically in the seven basic Laws of Morality that mankind received in the time of Noah. "Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal," are among the basics.

It is our job to make sure that everything we touch turns to spiritual gold.

How to Have Super Powers

He saw his cousin, Rachel. That vision gave him super strength. And it was not just because she was pretty! Let's examine this.

This was not Jacob's first encounter with a stone. As he was fleeing Esau's threat, he came to a place to be called Bet El, and slept there. He put a stone under his head, and then dreamed a great prophecy of a ladder stretching from Earth to Heaven, with angels ascending and descending. God then appeared and promised Jacob that He will be with him as he goes to his mother's home town, and that He will return him to The Promised Land after all has blown over.

Jacob, upon awakening, takes the stone he slept upon and makes it into an altar. He then promises that, if God will fulfill His pledge and give him protection and bring him back home, then this stone will become a House of The Lord. Indeed, this would some day be the site of the Holy Temple.

This "promise" Jacob makes is hard to understand, because he conditions it on God fulfilling His word. Is there even a question? God's word is as good as done. What was Jacob doubting?

Jacob was doubting himself. The vision he saw in his dream was no less than a clear representation of the way this world works. There is a physical element, the Earth, and a spiritual element, Heaven. Heaven, the spiritual part of our existence, has the power to defeat any physical limitations. Viktor Frankl, the psychologist who was a prisoner in Auschwitz during the Holocaust, sought to understand how the prisoners, in flimsy garments and suffering from malnutrition, could stand for hours in the Polish winter at roll call and still survive. He came to the conclusion that a spiritual sense of purpose, an overpowering Why, gives a man the power to deal with almost any obstacle and find the How.

Jacob, in distinction from his father, knew his lot was to live in the physical world. Isaac had been deeply sheltered, by his parents and by God, and his interactions with the mundane were none too successful. God had to intervene for him quite a bit. For Isaac to be spiritual was relatively easy, as his whole life had been spirituality. But for Jacob, it was not so clear. His brother Esau was completely "Earthy", and he knew he'd have to deal with all types.

So I believe Jacob doubted himself. He doubted that he would keep the "stones", the earthiness, connected to the "Heaven", his spiritual direction. He was afraid that the ladder he saw in the vision would disappear. Thus, he conditions his promise on God helping him, being with him, keeping him connected.

Thus we see the significance of the stone. It represents the earthy part of our existence. On its own, it is heavy, almost unliftable. But when a powerful spiritual call is heard, the earthy must yield. Jacob, as he first arrives at the well, inquires about his mother's family in town. He is told by the local shepherds that, indeed, they know his uncle Lavan, and behold his daughter, Rachel, is now approaching with his flocks.

So Jacob knows who this pretty girl is! She is his cousin, and she is someone whom his parents have urged him to find to marry. He sees, in that instant, that God is truly with him, and that he has fortuitously come to the right place. Jacon's Ladder is still in place. The excitement of that discovery powers his lifting of the stone.

And so it is with all of us. Our worlds our filled with earthy challenges, with heavy stones to lift. If we are depressed and doubtful, they are heavier still. But if we are inspired with a spiritual mission, if we are overjoyed by the faith that God is connected to us, those stones become light. We can lift them, we can be superhuman.

So it is with the State of Israel, which by all logic should not exist. Surrounded by hostile nations that outnumber her by 30:1, she should never have been able to survive th onslaught. And yet here she is, growing and thriving! That is only because of Jacob's Ladder, of the power of the spiritual connection. As long as the Jewish People sense